By Christa T. for Accordion Americana The late Country Music Scholar, Charles K. Wolfe wrote of Pee Wee King, “Pee Wee never picked cotton, never hopped a freight train, never worked as a song plugger in Nashville…unlike so many of his fellow members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Pee Wee King was not known as a guitar player or even as a singer. His instrument was an ungainly one, the accordion, and he played it so well that he inspired dozens of country bands to add it to their acts in the 1940s and 1950s….he was also a bandleader par excellence whose work often pushed the envelope of older country music. He was a gifted songwriter….a creative promoter, a finder of new talent, an explorer of new media, and, best of all, a consummate professional. In his heyday, Pee Wee King took Country music uptown and didn’t ask whether or not it was ready to go.”
Pee Wee King was then, what we now refer to as a ‘Game Changer’. But even though King is credited as being one of the key people to formulate the sound and look of Modern Country music, even co-writing Nashville’s own state song, ” The Tennessee Waltz“, he and his instrument are still considered to be outsiders by Country music insiders.. His effort to “mainstream” Country music caused great resentment and is still a primary reason why Nashville is resistant to, and even disdainful of the accordion as a viable instrument in Country music.
Born in Abrams, Wisconsin, February 18, 1914, King grew up there and was known under his given name, Frank Kuczynski. He performed as an accordionist and as a fiddler with his father’s band from the time he was fifteen years old. Shortly after, taking the name of King while still in high school, he formed Frankie King and The King’s Jesters in 1930. Within three years, King had his own radio program in Milwaukee and he and his band performed at the local Badger State Barn Dance. It was there that he was discovered by the legendary Gene Autry, an emerging cowboy singer. Autry bestowed the honorary title, ‘Pee Wee’ on King, for his small stature. King and Autry, lifelong friends from then on, moved to Louisville, Kentucky where King backed up Autry on radio before “The Singing Cowboy” left for Hollywood to become a film star.
When Autry departed, King decided to stick with radio, stay in Louisville and remain as a member of Frankie More’s Log Cabin Boys. He already had a business relationship with Autry’s manager, and also was interested in the manager’s step-daughter, a singer on the Louisville radio station. So, in the middle of America’s Great Depression, Pee Wee King acquired both his wife, Lydia Frank, and as his manager, J. L. Frank. He would eventually legally change his surname to King.
In 1937, Pee Wee King formed The Golden West Cowboys and shortly after was asked to join the Grand Ole’ Opry on Nashville’s WSN radio. The ambitious King immediately seized the opportunity to move away from the Opry’s strict mandate to use only stringed instruments. He brought in musical instruments never before heard at the Opry, such as the accordion, an amplified electric guitar, horns and the pedal steel guitar. In addition, Pee Wee King did not make many friends at the Opry when he refused to change his band’s sound when asked to do so, or when, along with Bob Wills, he insisted on using drums on stage.
This new style of music was loud and lively, danceable and entertaining, and very much influenced by the Big Band sound that was popular all over the world in the 1930’s and 1940’s. This gave it new energy, a new sound and brought Country music into the mid- twentieth century. Perhaps, because he didn’t come from that exclusive community of musicians and songwriters that grew up in the hills and the ‘hollers’ of the South, King saw what was known then as “Hillbilly” music, in a broader geographic context. He recognized the new “Country” music as being the music that included the entire nation, from east coast to west coast, and not just the music from the Southeastern part of the United States. In his vision, the Country music genre shifted and stretched to include Texas, Arizona and Southern California, and with this, it acquired a new “western” sensibility. Singers and songwriters from those areas must have taken note, like Marty Robbins, Roy Orbison and Buck Owens and many others and may have felt a sense of inclusion and opportunity in the new Country and Western sound.
Because King saw himself as an entertainer, when America went to war in 1941, he envisioned that Country music should be a part of the war effort and entertainment scene of mainstream America. He knew that to accomplish this, Country music needed a bigger sound and a bolder image. King had a love for flashy, professional showmanship. He outfitted his band with fancy, custom made suits. This new take on Country music became enormously popular all over America and eventually became associated with Nashville. But, at first, such flamboyance was met with resentment in Nashville and there was a strong outcry against King by music traditionalists. King also “changed the game” when he insisted that his band members be required to read music. They were also among the first musicians in Nashville to join the musicians union. He wanted his band, not only to appear professional, but actually be the best musicians in the music business.
The new sound of Country music spoke to wartime America. People needed opportunities to go out and dance, have a good time and for a few short hours, forget that the war was asking for big changes and great sacrifices from them. Country music was American music, and an expression of the new pride and nationalism that the entire country was experiencing. Music served to unify everyone during wartime and to underscore that we were one nation in the fight against tyranny. This new “Western” side of Country music, in its own way, placed American music, defiantly and squarely in the face of fascism and ideologies of “the East”, looming large in Europe and Japan. The Country and Western sound had nothing to do with any European immigrant tradition, and the piano accordion, for the first time, was front and center. It was the soldiers during the war that brought the new sound of Country music to where they were stationed. This opened up the world to Country music and laid the groundwork for its influence on pop music.
In spite of controversy, Pee Wee King remained with the Opry for ten years, quite a long time in show business years. During that decade many performers passed through the training ground of The Golden West Cowboys on their way to fame and fortune. They included singers Eddy Arnold, Cowboy Copas, Milton Estes, Tommy Sosebee, and singer/yodeler Becky Barfield. Pee Wee King and The Golden West Cowboys recorded and toured as Minnie Pearl‘s backing band over 1941-1942, as well as for Ernest Tubb. They also entertained the troops during the War with the Camel Caravan Tours, crisscrossing the country.
In 1946 as the war ended, King composed “The Tennessee Waltz” along with Redd Stewart, vocalist for The Golden West Cowboys,. It was inspired by Bill Monroe‘s composition of “The Kentucky Waltz“, now a standard in Bluegrass music. “The Tennessee Waltz” became an enormous hit, not only for King, but for Patti Page, becoming one of the biggest cross-over hits, of all time. It went on to become a Country music standard and, later on, the state song of Tennessee.
Pee Wee and his family moved from Nashville to Louisville in 1948 when an opportunity surfaced for Pee Wee to work on WAVE radio and television. He explained years later, “The main reason (for moving) was that I wanted television.” The conservative Opry management saw no real future in TV and, again, their view was at odds with King’s vision. But Pee Wee King saw great commercial success as a pioneer in the new medium of television, with regional and national television shows, not only from Louisville, but Cincinnati, Cleveland and Chicago. King won multiple Cash Box and Billboard awards for his television shows and had a six year run on ABC Television with “The Pee Wee King Show“. Just as King had foreseen, television had become an indespensible method of packaging and promoting talent and hit songs in all genres of music in just a few short years.
Pee Wee King continued to perform and record throughout the 1950’s, reuniting with Minnie Pearl until 1963. In 1965, the state of Tennessee adopted “The Tennessee Waltz” as the official state song. Pee Wee was always interested in the history of the music he had helped redefine, and served on the board of directors for the Country Music Hall of Fame and also served as Director for The Country Music Foundation.
Pee Wee King appeared in four movies, always as a band leader, “Gold Mine in the Sky” with Gene Autry, “Flame in the West” with Johnny Mack Brown, “Riding the Outlaw Trail” and “The Rough, Tough West” with Charles Starrett. He also released his own movie production, “Country-Western Hoedown” in 1967. About disbanding The Golden West Cowboys in 1969, King said, “I wanted to find what I thought was the top of my career. When I believed I had found it, I stopped striving and searching and enjoyed it.”
In 1970, Pee Wee King was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. He composed or co-wrote more than 400 songs, including some of the most popular songs in American music including the enormously successful “The Tennessee Waltz“, “Slow Poke“, “Silver and Gold“, “Changing Partners“, “Bonaparte’s Retreat“, “You Belong to Me“, “Walk By the River“, “Busybody” and “Bimbo” among many others.
In October 1971 Kentucky Governor Louis B. Nunn declared an official Pee Wee King Day in the state.
In 1974, Pee Wee King was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His recording career included more than twenty albums, 157 singles with eleven of them becoming chart hits. “Slow Poke” reached the top of both the pop and country charts and held that position for three months. It became not only King’s biggest hit, but his biggest crossover hit. Pee Wee performed and recorded hundreds of sides, from fiddle tunes to pop ballads.
In 1996 Pee Wee King worked with writer Wade Hall to produce his authorized autobiography, “Hell Bent for Music“ (University of Kentucky Press). It was a first person account about his life and career, narrated by King.
Before his death, a boxed set of King’s RCA work was released by Bear Family and a collection of his 1950’s radio transcriptions was released by Bloodshot Records (Pee Wee King’s Country Hoedown)
Pee Wee King died on Tuesday, March 7, 2000 at age 86 while recuperating after suffering a massive heart attack the week before. He was survived by his wife and their four children. Pee Wee and Lydia King were married for sixty-four years. Mrs. King passed away in 2011.
Pee Wee King was fearless, creative, ambitious and successful. He thought big and accomplished great things for his family, for the music industry, for Nashville, and for American music. Pee Wee had a vision from a very young age and never hesitated to trust it and to follow it, through out his life. He fought hard for what he believed in, and withstood an incredible amount of criticism for it. Though I never met him, I believe that his life was the stuff of which movies are made and I am proud to say that he was an accordion player.